Distracted driving is dangerous.
After a horrific accident threatens to cut short both Dr. Stephen Strange’s illustrious career and his life, the battered yet proud and determined surgeon’s journey through physical and emotional rehabilitation soon grants him not only the regained use of his finger dexterity but also the power to travel among dimensions and to manipulate space and time.
He’s a compelling character, with an ego that early on screams importance and the medical abilities to back it up, and a reliably standout performance from Benedict Cumberbatch makes him engrossing to watch, as do the visual splendor and the generally solid writing. This becomes a story that reminds us why origin stories are worth enjoying.
Doctor Strange doesn’t reinvent the genre wheel, but in a way it’s a better film for that.
First do no harm.
There aren’t many who can compare to Stephen Strange. Few are gifted with his steady hands or his immense medical knowledge, and he doesn’t let his coworkers forget it, especially when they underestimate him. This particularly extends to his former lover, Dr. Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams, 2015’s very important Spotlight), who compassionately tends to his grievous wounds and later gets a few scenes to play “hero” in her own way; she also never gets kidnapped. After unfortunately alienating her and distrusting others who are looking out for his interests, Strange finds himself headed east to Kathmandu, Nepal, to track down a man who supposedly received incredible healing. Early parts of the story feel like “Rich Self-Important Person Learns People Skills,” but the story’s later ruminations on the meanings of life and death and their relation to one another are genuinely interesting.
After his arrival and orientation (with numerous ups and downs) at a secret compound called Kamar-Taj, the skeptical doctor learns that there are many realities and supernatural beyond his understanding and that magic has the ability to heal and protect. All of this sounds too good to be true until his soul gets thrown through the heavens in a gleeful display that looks incredible in 3D, as do most of the shots in the film–even the dark ones, which bothered me in the first Avengers and the final Harry Potter. Foregrounds, backgrounds, Cumberbatch, and other speaking characters receive their proper emphases; the story’s characteristic city bending looks incredible in motion as floors ripple like waves; buildings wrap and warp around one another, sometimes being “rewound” to a point prior to their destruction; and Strange’s soul journey is an amazing showcase of natural fractals. Many spinning elements, especially hallways and other narrow locations that look like combination-lock tumblers, look better in motion than as still images. Doctor Strange’s action scenes really feel like what I wanted Inception to be, in that the movie’s excellent effects are evenly distributed throughout instead of being reserved primarily for any one section.
It’s notable that Doctor Strange doesn’t arrive at his character-defining moment via coincidence. He doesn’t just so happen to stumble across a robbery or a family member being killed, propelling him on some epic and amoral quest for revenge; he seeks treatment after modern medicine fails him; he heads east; and he finds a new life. His lessons in the mystical arts are familiar fantasy, but they’re underpinned by interesting philosophical and religious elements that feel like they’re meant to stick in the viewer’s mind long after the action has ended. There’s just enough scientific jargon to make the mystical healing seem plausible as well.
I’ve come to bargain.
The movie’s central villain isn’t very ambitious–an entity assimilates countless worlds, he especially wants to take over Earth for whatever reason, and he has followers who perceive this as being immortality worth chasing–but the enormous “Dormammu” and his interactions with Doctor Strange and other characters work quite well, as there’s nothing campy or unconvincing about his appearance. Without spoiling details, I especially enjoyed how the movie resolved this conflict–there is no ridiculously contrived loophole that allows Doctor Strange to somehow overwhelm such an enormous being through brute force. There is no Armageddon spell or magic weapon that instantly raises the question of why it would take so long for someone to use. There is no “gather three magic artifacts and the heavens will bring judgment” resolution, and the actual conclusion feels much more empathetic for it. Likewise, during one particularly impressive scene where a single spell went on for several minutes, I found myself wondering what the specific “physical” limits of these spells are, according to the story. Magical powers here, however, feel more limited by in-universe ethical and moral principles than by arbitrary “you can only cast this spell twenty-five feet away once per day” rules.
I found myself pondering the film’s bigger questions–it’s reasonable that we want ourselves and others to live longer, but how do we ethically make the most of our time (and extend it), however much it should happen to be? Despite the story’s sometimes convoluted indicators of whom to like and trust or not, there is one truly touching death scene made all the more poignant by the film’s immense and even unnecessary decorum. On that note, part of the middle of the film becomes a very unorthodox supernatural medical drama, which is every bit as compelling to watch as it really deserves to sound. The story’s true weak spot is its central romance, whose resolution feels very quick and very sanitary even if not so much embarrassing. It does, however, yield the necessary character development and change of personality, and on that note it feels like it accomplished its purpose–it’s just skeletal.
Doctor Strange himself, on the other hand, is self-righteous but by no means immoral. In one scene he actually gets lectured by another character on being too scrupulous, in large part because of his professional beliefs, and (without spoiling) his refusal to compromise those beliefs, whenever possible, makes him feel like an actual hero, not a super-enabled vigilante who makes up his own code of rules in the name of whatever he perceives to be a “greater good”–which is what several other characters do in this story, and it’s said or shown to be dangerous and unreliable. He is bound to a moral code not of his own making, and his pride seems to stem from his medical lifesaving abilities, not from a baseless ego. Even the core action that keeps the film going is something he does out of a desire to protect innocents or himself, not because he wants to make a bad guy suffer, and there’s a lot of admiration to be placed there.
There is something not altogether bad but nonetheless disconcerting about a story characterized by numerous “greater goods,” Faustian bargains, and mounting betrayals that still manages to address so many hungers and desires of the human heart that span many faiths. Eternal life. Love. Forgiveness. Self-control, both in the ability to exercise personal discipline and in the strength to improve worlds.
The movie’s pacing feels very interesting, because for all the movie’s references to realities and characters who exist outside of time, the film takes longer to get going and ends more abruptly than expected, which resulted in something of an “is that it?” feeling until I noticed two otherwise highly satisfying hours had gone by.
Conclusion: Doctor Strange love
I don’t know what I expected. A character I’d barely seen and whose story I hadn’t already heard told and retold, played by an actor I never associated with superhero movies, learning from a complex character played by Tilda Swinton (the White Witch from the Walden Media Narnia films)? Special effects that looked amazing in the trailer but made me afraid to get my hopes up for fear they’d be underutilized? This film might not flip the superhero genre on its head, nor does it force itself and the audience to look into a mirror as in a Dark Knight or a Civil War, but it’s a deeply enjoyable and even thematically important origin story even if it sometimes “plays dumb” and avoids answering its more complex religious questions. The movie is smarter than its straightforward martial-arts-and-mysticism concept sometimes wants to be.
The overall production is a gorgeous piece of work, because even while a few freeze-frame scenes look like they might have been green-screened, the reality-bending never gets old from start to finish. Those 3D glasses feel like a genuinely useful surcharge, and even though Doctor Strange doesn’t really give us a new story, I’ll take a conscientious re-examining of an old one quite happily.